Every year a maximum of 40 runners line up at the start of the Aintree Grand National and 600 million people worldwide tune in to watch them tackle the 30 notoriously difficult fences in a bid to put themselves into the history books. But how do those particular runners and riders make it to Grand National day?
A horse will be entered into the Grand National if it meets the minimum criteria for qualification and the owner and trainer feel that their horse is capable of handling the race. Not all horses are suited to the long Aintree course or have the necessary jumping ability. Even if a horse gets entered that doesn’t guarantee a place at the starting line as frequently over 100 get entered but there is a maximum field of just 40 for the race.
The race is open to horses aged seven and upwards that have been placed first, second, third or fourth in a chase of three miles or more and who are allotted a rating of at least 120 by the BHA Handicapper.
The entry date for the race is always at the end of January, with the names and numbers announced by the BHA (British Horseracing Authority) the following day. In 2018 there were 105 entries, 110 entries in 2017, 2016 had 126 entries, an increase of 28 on the 98 entered in 2015.
The BHA Head Of Handicapping then takes the list of entries and frames the weights. In other words, he decides which runners will carry the heaviest weights and which will carry the least. The handicap system is designed to give every horse a fair chance of winning the race, good horses will carry more weight than those perceived to have less ability.
The maximum weight any horse can carry in the Grand National will be 11st 10lbs and the minimum is 10st. Each runner’s weight will be largely determined by their OR (Official Rating) and the higher the rating, the higher the weight. Although the Grand National is the only race in Britain in which the Handicapper can ignoring the official ratings if he wishes, often to the consternation of owners and trainers.
Horses are then put in descending order from the highest to the lowest weighted and that also determines their race number. The top-weighted horse is number one, second heaviest weighted horse is number two and so on.
The weights are then announced, and from then on a series of ‘Declaration Stages’ or ‘Forfeit Stages’ take place. At each of these stages, potential Grand National Runners can be withdrawn from the proceedings by their trainers and as they are removed and the entries get whittled down so even horses that have not initially made the Top 40 may now do so as entries above them are taken out. In 2018 the top weighted horse was Definitly Red but he was then withdrawn at the first forfeit stage.
The very last declaration stage takes place at 10am on the Thursday immediately before Grand National day. This is the point where the top 40 Grand National runners will be near completion along with four additional reserves.
The following day, Friday, by 1pm any non-runners must be declared and be replaced by one of the four reserves. This is also the point where any horses who were previously allocated weights of less than 10st will have their weight increased to meet requirements.
Three runners were withdrawn at this stage in 2018 and replaced with reserves. However, on the morning of the National two more were taken out due to the heavy ground.
This resulted in 38 declared Grand National runners who lined up for the 2018 Randox Health Grand National.